Therapists have a front row seat to human nature. They’re privy to what people are thinking, feeling and fearing. They’re privy to people’s deepest yearnings and dreams. They’re privy to what people believe about themselves and others. They’re privy to people’s pain and how they process it. They’re privy to how people behave and how they navigate relationships. Which is why we asked six clinicians to share what they’ve learned about human nature after many, many years of seeing clients with many, many different issues.
In her work with clients with complex traumas, Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, has learned that being disconnected from yourself will lead to feeling disconnected from others. Because you can’t be fully yourself with someone if you don’t know who you are or what you want or need. In fact, some of Reagan’s clients don’t even understand the meaning of the question, “What do I need?” You can’t be vulnerable and share your innermost feelings if you don’t know what those feelings are.
Psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, has learned that everyone has baggage. “When I first started as a therapist, I felt intimidated by the highly successful people who seemed to have everything together career-wise. I soon found out the highly successful doctors, lawyers, politicians and celebrities all wrestle with the same baggage everyone else does.”
And that baggage—like the fear of failure and need to meet others’ expectations—can actually spark success in their career. But it also can derail their relationships and emotional lives, Howes said.
Another lesson lies in people’s resiliency. That is, we are more resilient than we think. For instance, some of Howes’s clients have sought therapy to help them “build a thicker skin.” Yet, when they reveal their stories of abuse and injustice and how they’ve achieved certain professional and personal goals, they actually reveal their amazing strength and courage.
“They may have adopted the identity of overly sensitive and weak, but their history points to a tremendous ability to overcome hardship and seek a healthier life,” Howes said. “Even…seeking out therapy is a compassionate and healthy act.”
Marriage and family therapist Jennine Estes has learned that connection is a foundational human need. It’s a need we try to meet with everything from social media to support groups (and it’s why we sometimes gravitate toward and stay in unhealthy relationships). “Sitting with copious amounts of people in my therapy practice, I have learned so much about how we all want to be loved.” (Because of this, she created the #BeingLOVEDIs project).
Estes has learned that fear is at the root of most relationship problems. For instance, she said, a couple fighting over bills is really fighting about their fears of losing security; of not being able to rely on each other; of not being heard; of dwindling finances in the future.
Fear also underlies a lesson that psychologist Selena C. Snow, Ph.D, has learned about human nature: So many people struggle with impostor syndrome. Graduate students regularly tell Snow that they fear their professors or peers will discover the (supposed) truth: They are inferior, and thereby didn’t deserve entrance into their program.
Snow helps these clients identify and assess their (erroneous) beliefs, which color their interpretations. She helps them identify and temper their unrealistic expectations (e.g., having to instantly excel at new tasks without running into questions or problems); and unhelpful comparisons (e.g., overestimating others’ abilities and dismissing their own strengths).
According to psychologist and anxiety expert Kevin Chapman, Ph.D, we naturally avoid things that make us feel bad and engage in activities and actions that make us feel good. “Though this is adaptive, I have learned that most people attempt to avoid emotions based on the ‘potential’ of feeling ‘bad.’” That is, people tend to avoid potentially uncomfortable things.
Over time, Chapman’s clients who struggle with anxiety interpret anxiety as bad and dangerous. Which leads them to avoid situations that might trigger anxiety. But while avoidance feels good in the short term, it only maintains anxiety in the long term. Because, in our minds, we make the fear bigger and bigger. We teach ourselves that we can’t handle anxiety-provoking situations. And our world gets smaller and smaller.
Both Chapman and Snow regularly see how clients desperately desire certainty and control. They yearn to be certain about their life choices and in control of outcomes, Snow said. They think that if they try hard enough and worry enough about all the possibilities and devise strategies to solve them, then everything will be OK. Everyone will be OK. Everything has to be OK because I planned for everything.
“The only problem with this approach, however, is that these are impossible goals,” Snow said. Unexpected circumstances come up all the time. Our enormous efforts turn out not to be enough. As Snow said, a husband or wife might try their hardest to be the perfect partner, but their spouse still has an affair or asks for a divorce.
“When we bake, if the only fruits we use in the recipe are apples, then we are likely to get an apple pie and not a blueberry pie. However, in life we sometimes aim for apple pie and end up with blueberry pie. This is where our human resiliency comes in to play as we learn to cope with uncertainty and limited control and the possibility of blueberry pie.”
Marriage and family therapist Cheryl Sexton has learned that people regularly say inconsiderate things simply because they don’t have practice discussing difficult or emotionally laden subjects. “[T]he initial response might not [be] truly reflective of how they feel, rather a reflection of their inexperience in that topic.” For instance, dozens of Sexton’s clients have been told unsupportive things when they’ve come out to their loved ones. Pregnant clients have received mean comments about their size from friends and colleagues.
Plus, “neighbors, friends, and even family members will tend to avoid people altogether when they or someone very close to them becomes very sick,” Sexton said.
While each of us is unique, we are not all that different. There are universal themes and universal emotions, thoughts and fears. And therapists have the incredible job of bearing witness to all of it.